Lawmakers condemn lease of scarce forestland to foreign firms

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A lawmaker has called for a no-confidence move against Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Cao Duc Phat for gross mismanagement of the nation's forestry resources.

National Assembly (NA) members are particularly incensed with the leasing of vast areas of forestland to foreign companies on his watch, which they say has the potential to undermine national security.

The criticism of Minister Cao Duc Phat on several counts was made during an NA on June 11.

Citing discrepancies between the minister's statement to the NA Vietnam's parliament and its National Defense and Security Committee's own findings, deputy Nguyen Dinh Xuan of the southern Tay Ninh Province said, "I can see that he hasn't fulfilled his task as a minister in managing the country's forestland and it has led to increased threats of floods and other natural disasters.

"I request that the minister, the NA and its agencies considers his confidence rating," he said.

Earlier in the session, Minister Phat said ten provinces have approved investment projects on more than 305,000 hectares [754,543 acres] of forestland, but lawmakers said this was remarkably underreported.

"Statistics show that by the end of 2009, ten provinces had approved investment plans on a total area of 305,353 hectares but it was just plans submitted for approval. In reality, investment licenses have been granted to lease 15,664 hectares for a 50-year term to foreign firms and another 18,160 hectares to joint ventures between local and foreign ones," Phat said.

"Actually, investors have just invested in 15,183 hectares to plant forests and in 542 hectares to breed livestock," he said.

The minister also said all the approved areas are land being zoned for planting productive forests and do not include natural forests or protected areas.

Faulty figures

Le Quang Binh, chairman of the NA's National Defense and Security Committee, questioned the accuracy of the minister's statement. The actual figures are that 18 provinces have approved plans to invest in nearly 400,000 hectares of forestland, he said.

"Most of this land is located at essential areas for national defense and security, including protective and upstream forests," he said.

Binh called for the government to improve its oversight over provincial authorities approving projects to lease forestland, saying Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung should approve these projects if the government failed to manage them.

There was no response to Binh's contention that Phat's figures underreported the actual situation. Phat only said he agreed with Binh on the need for stricter management of local authorities in approving investment plans for forestland.

Xuan of Tay Ninh Province criticized Phat strongly over the leasing of forestland. He said: "Minister Phat has been unable to manage the issue. He is the commander of the field... 400,000 hectares means nearly an area of Tay Ninh Province being leased. What's his responsibility when he didn't know that?"

Another mismanagement charge was leveled by Nguyen Viet Hung of the northern Hoa Binh Province who said some localities had leased forestland for "virtually free", including a case land was leased out for VND2.75 (US$0.00015) a square meter per year.

No lease to foreign firms

Binh of the NA's National Defense and Security Committee said that when local residents and enterprises lacked forestland to invest in, there was no justification to allow foreign investors to do so.

He said there has also been an increase in the demand for forestland land from highlanders for whom such land was a traditional source of income.

"[Local] residents and local firms should be given priority in renting forestland," he said.

He also said the government should have a meeting to discuss in-depth timely solutions to the leasing of forestland to foreign companies and their actions should be announced widely on the media.

Binh said that after he joined the NA team looking into the issue, he found problems in the process of approving investment plans involving foreign firms.

"All the localities have in fact reported to the government, the Prime Minister and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development before approving the plans, but the ministries only gave general responses.

"For instance, they would answer expressing agreement with the policy, but recommend that the province asks for more opinions from the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Public Security and the Prime Minister before granting approval. The province would approve the plan after submitting it to relevant agencies several times and getting no response," he said.

He also criticized the government for inaction in monitoring the leasing of forestland to foreign companies.

Binh said the government only held a meeting on the issue after Lieutenant General Dong Sy Nguyen, one of Vietnam's longest-serving and most respected military men, expressed his concerns publicly.

He admitted that his own agency, the parliamentary National Defense and Security Committee, had also begun to examine the issue only after Nguyen's warnings.


Lawmakers also questioned Minister Phat on the revocation of forestland from residents for leasing the same to foreign companies.

Phat admitted local authorities erred in issuing investment licenses without conducting a thorough survey of the land involved. Some localities have issued licenses to invest in forestland that had already been allotted to residents or other projects, he said.

Deputy Hung of Hoa Binh Province said many residents have illegally destroyed old-growth forests after their forest areas were revoked for leasing to foreign companies. The loss of productive land has also forced many into social evils and crimes in mountainous areas, he added.

On the perils of leasing forestland to foreign companies, Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc, who was asked by NA Chairman Nguyen Phu Trong to help answer Phat's questions, said the government could consider cancelling all forest investment plans.

"Projects with reasonable investment and of medium-scale could be allowed to go ahead while unreasonable and large ones that could threaten national defense and security will have their investment license revoked.

"The issue of investment license must be based on the 2003 Land Law. Forestland that had been granted to residents cannot be granted to other investors," he said.

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